What Did 19th Century Writers Look Like?


Some people spend years trying to figure out what historical figures looked like. Before reading this article, I never realized how much work went into the process.

The photo below depicts the only verified image of Jane Austen. It’s a portrait done by her sister, who was not an artist. The Jane Austen Centre decided to hire a forensic artist in order to create a more accurate depiction on Austen, a wax sculpture (see the photo above). In order to make this sculpture, the forensic artist not not only used the portrait done by Austen’s sister, but she also read letters by Austen’s family members who reacted to the portrait. In addition to that, she used letters by other people who had interacted Austen, and she compared the descriptions in those letters to the portraits of Austen’s parents and siblings, who shared certain facial characteristics, such as a long, narrow nose.

It was fascinating to learn about this artistic detective work.

NPG 3630; Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen

Several years ago, historians attempted to piece together the likeness of another 19th century writer, the poet Emily Dickinson. (It’s also an interesting article.) They found the daguerreotype below, which is a potential image of Dickinson around the age of thirty. (She would be the woman on the left.)


They had one authentic photograph of Dickinson to compare it to, a portrait taken when she was sixteen years old. Experts have compared such things as the characteristics of her eyes (one of her eyes had an astigmatism) and the distance between her nose and lips.


It sounds like an intriguing puzzle, just like her poetry.


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